The Long Road to Equality for African-Americans

Despite the rise of Barack Obama, many African-Americans still feel like second-class citizens. John Kirk charts the progress of the civil rights movement through its most prominent body, the NAACP, which celebrated its centenary in February 2009.

On February 12th, 1909 – the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth – a group of 60  activists, both black and white, signed a petition issuing ‘The Call’ for America to rededicate itself to the ideals of racial justice that Lincoln had come to represent. ‘Besides a day of rejoicing,’ the petition read, ‘Lincoln’s birthday ... should be one of taking stock of the nation’s progress since [his assassination in] 1865.’ Today, 100 years later, the organisation born out of The Call, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is America’s oldest and largest civil rights group. Its history is the history of American civil rights in the past century.

The NAACP’s origins had numerous strands. At the end of the American Civil War (1861-65) the promise of Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was fulfilled when southern slaves were freed. During the period of Reconstruction (1865-77), the victorious Republican North sought to create a biracial democracy in the South. The cornerstone of this project was three constitutional amendments. The 13th Amendment (1865) officially abolished and prohibited slavery. The 14th Amendment (1868) granted former slaves (and all US citizens) ‘equal protection’ under the law. The 15th Amendment (1870) prohibited denial of the vote because of ‘race, color, or previous condition of servitude’.

When a new generation of Republican politicians abandoned Reconstruction in 1877, prioritising national unity and economic progress over racial justice, Southern Democrats, many of whom had supported and fought for the Confederate Army during the Civil War, seized power. They quickly set about undermining the civil rights of former slaves. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, racial discrimination was formalised in a set of laws that provided for the segregation and disenfranchisement of the black population.

Southern Democrats could not blatantly ignore constitutional amendments. But they did, with northern and federal complicity, find various ways around them. The US Supreme Court condoned segregation in Plessy v Ferguson (1896) by upholding the legal doctrine of ‘separate but equal’. Homer Plessy had appealed against his jail sentence for sitting in a train carriage for whites only. The court said that as long as facilities for blacks were ‘equal’ to whites, the phrase used in the 14th Amendment, they could be provided separately. In practice, separate hardly ever meant equal. By introducing literacy tests and poll taxes as voter qualifications, Southern Democrats undermined the 15th Amendment by effectively disenfranchising a largely illiterate and almost uniformly poor black population.

Beneath the velvet glove of constitutional subtleties lay an iron fist of violence and intimidation. It was not just the vigilantism of groups like the Ku Klux Klan that enforced white supremacy. The idea became deeply embedded in southern society. African-Americans who transgressed the law, or who simply failed to show adequate deference to whites, could face deadly consequences. Lynchings were rife. One study compiled by the NAACP reported 3,224 lynchings of African-Americans between 1889 and 1919.

African-Americans responded in a number of ways. Those who could afford to do so moved in the Great Migration to northern and western cities. Although they escaped formal segregation in the South, they often encountered other forms of racial discrimination elsewhere. But there were many who viewed the South as their home, a place where they had been born and raised and where they had family ties. Some subscribed to the ideas of southern-born Booker T. Washington, a former slave and America’s foremost black leader at the turn of the century. Washington extolled the benefits of individual thrift and hard work, and the building of strong black institutions as the key to uplifting his race. Although his approach has sometimes been dismissed as too tolerant of segregation and oppressive conditions, it offered a pragmatic response to a worsening racial climate when African-Americans had few alternatives open to them.

Washington’s most outspoken critic was the northern, free-born, Harvard-educated black intellectual and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. From the marginally less oppressive racial climate of the North, Du Bois advocated forthright and unceasing protest against all forms of racial discrimination. In July 1905, he led 29 black activists in forming the Niagara Movement, taking its name from a meeting held at Niagara Falls, which demanded ‘every right that belongs to a free-born American – political, civil and social’. Despite making little progress in its own right, the Niagara Movement became a forerunner of the NAACP.

The immediate trigger for the birth of the NAACP was a race riot in August 1908 in Springfield, Illinois – symbolically significant as the place Abraham Lincoln  called ‘home’. The riot led to six African-Americans being killed, 50 injured and thousands forced to flee for their lives.

A meeting in New York City in May-June 1909 followed The Call and led to the founding of a National Negro Conference. The next year it was renamed the NAACP. A board of directors was created, with Moorfield Storey, a white lawyer, as the NAACP’s first president. Headquarters were set up in New York City. Du Bois, as director of publications and research, was the only black executive officer. In 1910, he became editor of the NAACP’s influential journal The Crisis. During its first decade, NAACP membership grew from less than 200 to more than 50,000 nationwide. Local branches mushroomed to a total of 220 in 1919.

The NAACP’s growth built on its early campaigns. It lobbied Congress to pass an anti-lynching bill. Though unsuccessful in this ambition, it succeeded in raising public awareness of the problem. When D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation glorified the Klan and included derogatory black stereotypes, NAACP members protested outside cinemas. During the First World War, the NAACP won appointments of black army officers in segregated units. Du Bois called for African-Americans to ‘close ranks’ and to fight and prove their worth to the nation.

Over 350,000 served in the US army. Around 200,000 were sent to Europe and over 40,000 were involved in combat. Yet, after the war, any idea of a reward for military service was rapidly quashed. A new wave of race riots erupted as whites looked to reassert their authority over emboldened black veterans.

The NAACP’s early years also saw a number of landmark victories in the Supreme Court. Guinn v United States (1915) struck down a law disenfranchising black voters in Oklahoma because it violated the 15th Amendment. Buchanan v Warley (1917) set aside a law requiring residential segregation in Louisville, Kentucky. Moore v Dempsey (1923) overturned the convictions of 12 black men sentenced to death for their alleged role in a race riot in Elaine, Arkansas.

After its first decade, control of the NAACP began to shift from white to black. In 1920, James Weldon Johnson became the NAACP’s first black executive secretary, the most influential post in the organisation. Since then only African-Americans have held this position. Walter White replaced Johnson in 1929. The following year, the NAACP was successful in helping to block President Herbert Hoover’s Supreme Court nomination of Judge John J. Parker. The NAACP objected to Parker’s past racist rhetoric and his vocal opposition to black suffrage. Its 1930 annual conference declared of this victory: ‘The NAACP Comes of Age’.

The political and demographic changes of the 1930s had a far-reaching impact on the NAACP. President Roosevelt’s New Deal ushered in an era of more active federal government. Though the New Deal had an ambiguous impact on African-Americans – Roosevelt was more concerned with tackling economic depression than bringing about racial equality – there was a palpable shift in federal sympathies. Many abandoned Lincoln’s Republican Party: ‘That debt is paid in full’, one commentator wrote. Instead African-Americans began to vote for the nationally more progressive Democratic Party – even though, at a local and state level in the South, it remained the party of white supremacy.

Parents Involved in Community Schools v Seattle School District, the Supreme Court outlawed methods used by school districts to promote diversity. The LDF called the decision ‘a step backward from Brown’.

Barack Obama’s election as US president in 2008 points to how far things have changed in the last 100 years. Yet the cries of ‘Kill Him!’ and ‘Terrorist!’ yelled when Obama’s name was mentioned at some Republican presidential rallies demonstrate that there is still some way to go. On the centenary of the the NAACP’s founding, and 200 years after the birth of Abraham Lincoln, America stands once again at a racial crossroads.

John A. Kirk is Professor of US History at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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